January 19

This Day in History

Literary

Jan 19, 1921:

Patricia Highsmith is born

On this day, crime novelist Patricia Highsmith is born in Forth Worth, Texas. Highsmith, who wrote some 20 novels and seven short story collections, examined the darkest sides of human nature and frequently portrayed a world chillingly free of morality or consequences.

Highsmith had an unhappy childhood. Her parents separated several months before her birth, and she spent her earliest years with her maternal grandmother, who taught her to read before Highsmith was two years old. Highsmith's mother remarried and brought Highsmith to New York when the girl was about six. Her mother and stepfather frequently fought bitterly, and Highsmith developed a strong dislike for both.

Highsmith began writing chilling stories in high school: One story, about a murderous nanny, was rejected by her high school's literary magazine. She studied English at Barnard College, then took a job writing comic book scripts. Her first novel, Strangers on a Train, was rejected by six publishers before appearing in print in 1950. Alfred Hitchcock directed a 1951 film version of the movie, scripted by Raymond Chandler. Although Highsmith was paid only $7,000 for the film rights, it was enough to support her writing full time.

As a writer, Highsmith was far more interested in the psychology of her characters than she was in writing typical detective stories. In fact, her favorite character, charming murderer Tom Ripley, is never caught and indeed finds fortune and prosperity from his string of murders. Ripley first appeared in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1957) and starred in four more novels, the last of which, Ripley Under Water, was published in 1991.

Highsmith spent most of her adult life living abroad, eventually settling in Switzerland after stints in the United Kingdom, Italy, and France. She never married and lived alone, except for her many cats. An animal lover, she wrote an entire short story collection, The Animal Lover's Book of Beastly Murders (1975), in which animals avenge themselves on their human owners. Highsmith died in Switzerland at age 74.

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